Turkey Sidesteps Secularism Debate Erdogan Foregoes Presidency in Favor of Gül

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pegged Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül as his party's candidate for president. The decision will likely deflate tensions amid concerns for Turkish secularism.

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül is set to become the country's next president.

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül is set to become the country's next president.

For months, tensions have been building within Turkey amid speculation that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan would run for president despite doubts from within the army as to his commitment to the country's secular system of government. On Tuesday, Erdogan announced that he will forgo the presidency -- but the candidate chosen instead could be just as controversial.

Erdogan announced that his Justice and Development Party (AK) has chosen current Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül to succeed the current president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, whose seven-year term ends on May 16. Given the government's parliamentary majority, Gül's eventual appointment by the 550-member body is seen as little more than a formality.

"After our evaluations to seek a name for the 11th president, we have come up with the name of our dear friend Abdullah Gül," Erdogan said. "No doubt, the final decision rests with the parliament. The decision of the parliament will be the decision of the people."

Many in Turkey had opposed an Erdogan presidency due to the prime minister's alleged Islamic leanings. Some 300,000 took to the streets earlier this month to oppose Erdogan, and the Turkish army, which traditionally sees itself as the protector of the secularism introduced by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk soon after the 1923 founding of modern Turkey, even issued a subtle warning against an Erdogan presidency.

But even as the decision shows the AK Party's willingness to avoid a confrontation over an Erdogan candidacy, Gül embodies many of the same doubts. Like Erdogan's wife, Gül's wife Hayrunisa wears a headscarf and secularists are opposed to the idea of Islamic attire in the presidential palace. Head scarves have been banned in public offices and on university campuses since Atatürk's Western-style reforms in the 1930s.

"His mind-set is no different than Erdogan's," Mustafa Ozyurek, deputy chair of the main opposition party, Republican People's Party, told the AP. "There is no evidence that he is sincerely loyal at heart to the secular republic and principles of Atatürk."

Gül, briefly served as prime minister from 2002 to 2003 before moving into his current role. As foreign minister, he has helped guide his country through reforms necessary for eventual European Union membership as well as improving relations with neighboring Syria. He is also seen as a moderate despite his loyalty to Erdogan, having renounced political Islam and pointing out that the movement's leader, former Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, made mistakes.

"The president must be loyal to secular principles," Gül told reporters on Tuesday. "If I am elected, I will act accordingly."

Secularists in Turkey considered Erdogan unfit for the presidency due to his lifelong connection with political Islam. His Welfare Party was banned in 1997, having been found a threat to the secular state, as was the ensuing Virtue Party in 1999. Erdogan was convicted of inciting religious hatred in 1998 for publicly reciting a poem which read: "The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers…." He served four months of a 10 month sentence for the infraction.

The position of Turkish president is largely a ceremonial one but also includes the power to veto legislation. Outgoing President Sezer rejected a record number of bills and appointments during his term for fear of encroachments on Turkish secularism.



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